by Justin Naylor Robert Tressel's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists leaves a powerful impression on its readers. Tressel wrote the novel not long before his death from tuberculosis in 1911. It deals with a group of painters and decorators working in the pitiable conditions that characterised working class life in Edwardian England. For workers reading the book nearly a century later, the most striking thing about it is that, while certain material conditions may have improved, the relationship between workers, the bosses and their intermediaries remains essentially the same. The characters in Tressel's novel are still to be found in the modern workplace. Some workers are quietly compliant, some are obsequious, and others are quietly defiant. On rare occasions, someone will try against great odds to instil a socialist consciousness in the others. Just about every reader of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists knows their own latter day version of Crass, Hunter, Easton and Owen. My current employment is a prime example of this phenomenon. For the past 12 months I have been a driver for a smallish bakery in the Western suburbs of Adelaide. All up, about 20 people are involved in baking, packing and delivering pies, pasties, focaccias, cakes and what have you, all over Adelaide. A few people — the owners with a couple of others — administer the enterprise from very close quarters. I got the job thanks to the intervention of Carlos, who had already been a driver himself for about a year. I complained to him that our family desperately needed an additional source of income. I was still cutting wooden items at home for craft suppliers and I had had stints of part time work during the previous 18 months. My wife was working part-time in a large manchester store in the city. The kids were entering the most expensive phase of their teenage years. In spite of my best efforts, I couldn't land a job until Carlos put in a good word for me at the bakery. He suggested that I also put myself in touch with Juan, the owner of the establishment located not too far from where I live. Juan was the classic self-made migrant success story. He had arrived with his partner Luisa from Uruguay 18 years earlier. They had built a bakery business from a husband and wife undertaking that made deliveries in the family car into the operation now being carried on in its own factory in an industrial zone in Adelaide. My first meeting with Juan was cordial. He was an odd mixture of the stern and the unctuous as he described the job to me. I would need to get to the bakery at 4.30am to check the trays of cakes to be loaded in the van and delivered — in my case — all over the northern suburbs of the city and to some outlying towns. I would accompany Carlos in his van for a few days until I learned the run. While I was receiving this training, I would receive half pay, i.e. half of $312 per week before tax for an average of 25 hours work. Lady luck was shining down on me, drivers at the bakery had just been granted a modest pay increase! Learning the ropes The training with Carlos was a breeze. We yarned between deliveries about political issues. I had known him for years through various solidarity activities — with Chile and Cuba, for example. On my own, the job proved quite demanding. The early mornings made me bleary eyed and I often woke up with a headache. I would make stupid mistakes like forgetting to drop off the full order to a cafi or delicatessen, obliging me to double back with the tray of croissants or whatever. All the while I would be getting further behind schedule and the tension would be building up in my body. A slender majority of the small business owners would be understanding. Others would take every opportunity to be unpleasant. One woman addressed me as "boy" (I am 47 years old). Another showed his impatience by lifting the roller door at the front of his business to about waist height and, once I had placed the cakes on the counter, barked "okay, out!" at me. Don't worry, I plotted my revenge as I limboed my way under the shutter. The petty bourgeoisie is not called petty for nothing, it seems. I settled into the duties and rarely get seriously behind the various deadlines for the deliveries nowadays. I have never become accustomed to the cold early morning starts, sneaking out while the rest of the family sleeps on. I never realised, before this, just how many other people work these anti-social hours. Mine is far from the only car on the road on those weekday mornings. When I drop off boxed consignments of cakes to the transport companies located inside the Pooraka produce markets, the place is already a floodlit hive of activity at 5am. Trapped The greatest education I have had at the bakery, though, is about people — the types of people that work at these underpaid, casual jobs with ridiculous hours and unpleasant conditions. Most are my vintage or older — excluded from better jobs by their age and a lack of the skills currently in demand. Margaret was a prime example. She was in her early 50s and had a daughter with a mental disability. Her daughter recently made her a grandmother, making the income from the packing job doubly important at the time. She worked on and off for Juan for over a decade as a casual and was fully aware that she was being jipped. Margaret began her shift at 11pm and packed with her offsiders until about 4am the next morning. They get about $250 per week because they are only paid for their labours up until 3am. The official line is that during summer they might not even have to work until 3 o'clock because of the downturn in business in the warmer months. However, the packers know full well that it doesn't "average out" at all and, in any case, as supervisor Margaret had to be present until the last driver had left the bakery just before 6am. Margaret resisted every suggestion I made to join the union or otherwise defend herself. She insisted that Juan would simply sack anyone that he found out had joined the union and could cover his tracks before any outside investigation. She said she had witnessed him see off quite a few challenges over the years. In the end, little could be done for Margaret. She began to come to work with bandaged forearms and would wince as she lifted the heavy trays of pies and sausage rolls. She had injuries to the tendons in both forearms. Of course, she had no paid leave available and I think she simply walked away with nothing. Ramon was another one to suffer under Juan's arbitrary rule. He was a driver who had the much-loathed city run. He had also worked for the bakery for years on and off. All the while, he had been applying for a job outside that would give him better pay and more sleep. He finally got a position as a hospital orderly — a dream government job with super, recreation leave and other trimmings. He had told Juan that he was going for the job and, when he got it, notified him that he would be starting the following Monday. This meant that, even though his casual status didn't require it, he was giving a week's notice to the boss. Juan flew into a rage at this "lack of suitable notice" and sacked him on the spot, depriving Juan of a week's pay and adding to his financial problems. Cristina was one of the few younger workers at the bakery. She was in her mid 20s and a migrant from Peru. She had arrived a few years ago and, like many of the others, was working a number of low paid jobs to make ends meet. Her husband had recently been made redundant at Mitsubishi's and they had a new little mouth to feed with baby Gloria. Every morning Cristina would leave the bakery to work in her uncle's courier business. Later she would waitress at a cafi before coming to do packing at the bakery again. She would take catnaps when she could. One morning, I was busy with my trays of cakes when I saw Cristina fall backwards without any restraint and bump her head with a sickening thud on the tiled floor. We all ran to see what was wrong, suspecting a diabetic episode or something similar. She had simply fallen asleep standing up. She left the job soon after. With the different shifts worked by the different workers and the high turnover, it's hard to know what happens in cases like Cristina's. Has she found better work or other any work at all? Is she coping? Who knows? Frightened to sign up Sharon was another of the younger workers at bakery. She had also refused my invitations to band together in the union. She still had to repay $2,000 for the second hand car she had just bought and needed the job. She, too, was convinced that union membership was a one-way ticket out of the place. Even the fact of my membership of the Miscellaneous Workers Union was not enough to shake this conviction. I was very surprised, then, when Sharon was sacked because she had been refusing to sign the slip attached to her pay packet. This document always understated the hours she had been working. She had stood up to a number of tirades from Juan and preferred to walk rather than sign something that wasn 't true or fair. I caught up with her later on and found out that she had taken the question of back pay to the Industrial Relations Commission herself and managed to get $700 odd out of a fuming Juan. It is a worry that a person with that sort of pluck would rather battle alone than join with others to stay in work. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the "prize" of staying on at jobs like those just doesn't have sufficient appeal. I had my own major confrontation with Juan a little while later. I had already ruffled his feathers when I asked him why Sharon had been sacked. He folded his arms before asking me what business it was of mine. I said that the place was an unhappy one to work in because of events like Sharon's dismissal. A mobile phone call prevented him from launching into one of his famous rants but I knew my insolence would not be forgotten. One morning, I was dropping off a delivery to a cafi in Virginia at about 6am. I was about to do my usual thing of opening up a storeroom accessible from a service area behind the shopping centre. I turned the corner to see a utility parked in my usual spot and a middle- aged woman spread face down on the ground. I jumped out of the van with intentions of helping when I noticed that she was lying in a pool of blood. She was dead. I then saw a tear in her jumper and a wound with a bruise around it. This was the first time I had seen a bullet wound and I hope it's the last. I was about to ring the police when a woman called out from over the road that she had already rung. The poor thing was shaking like a leaf so I resolved to wait with her until the Police arrived. When they did, they ordered me to take the keys out of the bakery van and leave it. It was then fenced into the crime scene behind plastic tape while I made a statement to a police officer in one of the cars blocking off the street. Never mind the body When I had finished, I rang Juan at his home to tell him about the disaster that had overtaken my run that morning. I was stunned when, rather than asking after my welfare, he launched into a rave, insisting that I get my van out of the crime scene and resume the deliveries. "Who's going to pay me for those cakes? You must keep insisting that you be allowed to take the van out and not stop until they agree!" I passed him to the policewoman that had been taking my statement. She confirmed my understanding of the predicament and handed him back to me. Juan told me to speak to someone senior at the scene. The policewoman was clearly an idiot, according to Juan. While I was still considering what to do, the same policewoman came back to me and said that if I backed the van carefully out of the driveway, I could be on my way. I drove off fighting feelings of anger and the horrible memories of what I had seen just an hour before. When I got back to the bakery, I walked into Juan's office and told him that I couldn't work for him, that he was unfit to manage people and that his lack of judgement could put people in danger. I insisted that my pay be made up and that I be allowed to leave. Needless to say, Juan flew into a rage and made the most incoherent defence of his actions imaginable. He knew I was a bad egg from the time I had had the temerity to ask about Sharon's sacking, and so on, and so forth. In the end, he instructed Pedro, the office administrator, to give me my pay and I walked out just glad to be shot of the place. Imagine my surprise when a month later I got a phone call from Juan. He told me in a soft voice that the business was in trouble and in voluntary administration. If things didn't turn around sufficiently to at least make the business saleable, Juan might even lose his house. I found out from other sources that Juan, in order to pay his other bills, had been failing to pass on the GST and even some of his withholdings to the tax office. Now the ATO was insisting on being paid! Boss comes crawling Among his other problems, the driver who had taken over my run had become ill and they desperately needed a replacement. "I know I was unreasonable with you, but would you, as a personal favour, come back for a few days until the other driver is well enough?" I fought my initial feelings of hostility and agreed. Days turned to weeks when it was found that the poor driver I was filling in for had leukaemia. Weeks have now become months. New owners have taken over and life goes on pretty much as before. Juan has left and taken most, but not all, of the authoritarian atmosphere of the place with him. A seemingly endless stream of characters — straight from the pages of Tressel's novel — continues to pass through the bakery. Like Steve, the former driver turned sales rep who would get you to complete some pointless task every time he saw you, just to satisfy his need for some petty measure of power. And John, the chief baker who looked for the all the world like a beaten dog. He had suffered the most from the previous owner's unpredictable mood swings. Almost a hundred years have passed since Tressel wrote his insightful novel about working classing life in Hastings. It is a scandal that so many of his observations are still valid at the beginning of the 21st century. Surely, another century won't be allowed to pass before workers act to change the basis of societies that can't or won't ensure dignified conditions for all its citizens.